Gale`s View - A Free Press 11th January 2017
I have been a longstanding critic of that body that was once responsible for the enforcement of the code of Conduct that applied to our newspapers, the Press Complaints Commission. Even under the Chairmanship of Lord Wakeham, a man known to me personally as both decent and fair, it was still the creature of the Press, paid for by the Press and dominated by the proprietors and editors of the UK`s national newspapers. It should surprise nobody that this self-serving body was inclined to favour those paying the piper and to brush aside the interests of complainants who felt themselves to have been wronged in print.
When I worked in an editorial capacity for the BBC there was one golden rule that was observed above all others: if a story does not stand up then you do not run it. In the diaspora of what used to be known as `Fleet Street` that venerable institution `the spike` has been sacrificed on the altar of circulation. In an age of “never mind the truth, tell the tale” our national newspapers have, I believe, become ever more venal, self-serving and, as we have seen, on occasions downright corrupt. That is an accusation that I level not just at Murdoch`s Sun and the former News of the World but at the Mirror, the Daily and Sunday Mails, the Express and, yes, the Telegraph and the Guardian. In the dog-eat-dog world of falling sales and dwindling advertising and in the desire to be, if necessary, the last man standing, anything goes and veracity goes first.
Given that jaundiced view I have been, and remain, an active supporter of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) Chaired by Sir Alan Moses and an ardent opponent of the State approved “regulator”, Impress, backed by the former Formula One Racing supremo Max Mosley.
Why? The answer is simple. A free democracy requires a free Press and the remedy lies entirely in the hands of the reader: if you don`t like it, don`t buy it. And, as the Sun experienced on Merseyside following that newspaper`s grotesque reporting of the Hillsborough disaster, if enough people exercise their purchasing power even the most arrogant and powerful editorial attitudes have to change.
In the course of my international work I have visited more than enough countries that exercise State control over the media and in which brave journalists daily risk their lives in their efforts to report the truth to understand that however bad and dishonest a newspaper may be, State control is ten times worse and much more dangerous. And the “Impress” exercise, coupled with a draconian financial imposition upon non-member newspapers against which complaints are made, is a step too far towards a very slippery slope.
Of course we, the public (and not just or even the “great and good”) must have a right to redress when a newspaper prints erroneous facts or downright lies. Further and in this age of intrusive electronic surveillance there has to be an enforceable code of practice that deters the sort of illegal phone and internet hacking that has hitherto been employed by some newspapers. People are entitled to privacy within their lawful lives. If, though, the State permits measures that lead to the bankruptcy and closure of, particularly, local newspapers that are already facing monumental financial challenges from on-line news and advertising then we shall all be the poorer. That is why I still believe that the self-regulation of IPSO, which will not be infallible but has the support of the overwhelming majority of publications, remains preferable to sanctimonious persecution by a minority who, mostly, have an axe to grind.
The Press may be “Drinking in The Last Chance Saloon” but that, surely, is no reason to tear down the bar. Instead of fighting yesterday`s battles, democratically elected Parliaments and Assemblies, which have to take a lead, would serve the public and the media better by seeking to address the very real and infinitely more dangerous issues raised by the abuse of the internet and cyberspace. That is the field upon which tomorrow`s media wars will be fought and upon which, arguably, the future of communication in a free world depends.